Siouxsie in Wonderland – The Banshees’ TV Special

In 1983, nine bands in the UK were given carte blanche by Channel 4 to create their own 50 minute TV special under the banner Play at Home. Most took the conventional documentary route, talking about the creation of their music or taking the camera with them on the road. New Order chose to play with the format by covering the history of Factory Records (later to be revisited in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People [2002]), including an interview conducted by keyboardist Gillian Gilbert with label owner Tony Wilson while he was taking a bath. But Siouxsie and the Banshees topped the lot, delivering an acid-drenched Mad Hatter’s tea party dumped directly from their collective subconscious which I recently discovered buried among the extras of their Nocturne DVD.

It was a weird time for the Banshees. After a string of three successful albums with ex-Magazine guitarist John McGeoch (1980-1982), the pressures of touring and other personal issues led to his departure from the band. Meanwhile the Cure was undergoing a similar upheaval – bass player Simon Gallup, fresh off a creatively fruitful string of three albums across the same period, had been booted from the band after his antics on tour, leaving guitarist/vocalist Robert Smith (who wouldn’t speak to Gallup again for 18 months) dubious about the band’s future. Smith had filled in as emergency guitarist for the Banshees back in 1979, after their original guitarist and drummer quit just a few days into a concert tour (and only a few hours before they were due to perform). And so in November 1982 – the same month which saw the release of the Banshees’ album A Kiss in the Dreamhouse and the Cure’s post-Gallup side-swerve single “Let’s Go to Bed” – Robert Smith formally joined Siouxsie and the Banshees as their new guitarist, touring with them until the end of the year.

No sooner had 1983 begun than the fledgling line-up fractured into separate projects. Vocalist Siouxsie Sioux (Susan Ballion) and ex-Slits drummer Budgie (Peter Clarke) – who became the band’s third core member during the aforementioned 1979 crisis – flew off to Hawaii in January to record Feast, their first full album as The Creatures. Drawing inspiration from this change of environment led them to develop the infusion of tropical exotica which came to distinguish the Creatures’ sound from that of the Banshees (although some of that influence can be detected in the Banshees song “Take Me Back” on their follow-up album Hyaena).

Choosing to take a journey of the mind rather than the body, bass player/co-lyricist Steve Severin and Robert Smith spent the Spring of 1983 immersing themselves in a drug-fuelled haze of weird VHS tapes interspersed with occasional recording sessions, christening their new band as The Glove in homage to the Dreadful Flying Glove which served as the right hand man (er, glove) to the Chief Blue Meanie in the Beatles’ lysergic animated film Yellow Submarine (1968). Joining them on their psychedelic voyage were Budgie’s ex-girlfriend Jeanette Landray (a Top of the Pops dancer and untrained singer who provided most of the vocals due to Smith’s contractual complications) and drummer Andy Anderson, who made his name in the prog rock scene working with Nik Turner (Hawkwind), Steve Hillage (future collaborator with The Orb) and Mother Gong. The resulting album was named after Blue Sunshine (1977), a horror movie about a bad batch of LSD which turns people into homicidal psychotics. Also hanging around during these sessions were Marc and the Mambas, a side project of Soft Cell’s Marc Almond with Matt Johnson (The The) and Annie Hogan, who repurposed one of Smith’s demos (with new lyrics) for their album Torment and Toreros.

A brief interlude followed, during which Smith popped off to record “The Walk” with the Cure’s one remaining member while the Creatures reconvened to cover Mel Tormé’s interpretation of jazz flautist Herbie Mann’s “Right Now” (an original arrangement which would in turn be covered by the Pussycat Dolls in 2005). The four Banshees then re-converged to begin work on the Hyaena album, sessions which also spawned the psychedelic Beatles cover “Dear Prudence” and its B-side “(There’s A) Planet in My Kitchen”, one of the most bizarre songs they ever recorded, later described by Siouxsie as: “The sound of the band collectively losing their grip on reality, headed by their demented leader [producer/engineer Mike Hedges].” The next few months saw Smith bouncing back and forth between bands, continuing to work on Hyaena while dragging Anderson off to record “The Love Cats” and follow-up album The Top with The Cure, in the midst of which Siouxsie and the Banshees performed a two concert set at the Royal Albert Hall which was filmed and released as Nocturne. And squeezed in somewhere amongst this frenzy of activity, the Banshees filmed their TV special.

We open in the offices of Wonderland, the Banshees’ newly established record label, as their manager Dave Woods is explaining to a caller that no more concert tickets are available. The Banshees shamble into his office crying: “No room! No room!” “I’m late!” declaims their manager, hanging up the phone. Suddenly they’re all sitting at a lengthy table laid out for tea, silhouetted against the CSO fringing of an ever-mutating filmed backdrop. Woods has transformed into the White Rabbit, sitting next to drum technician Jos Grain as the Mad Hatter, while the four Banshees are dressed identically as Alice. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party provides the framing sequence for what is to follow, a series of spoken and musical vignettes which keep cutting back to the party as more people arrive and everybody gets increasingly off their face on whatever is in that teapot. Joining them in their madness are Tim Collins (March Hare), who is credited for “Panic” on the Nocturne album and would take over as their manager from 1987-1995; Mike Hedges (a ginger-bearded Queen of Hearts), producer & engineer on most of the Banshees’ and Creatures’ albums (as well as The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds and Faith); Annie Hogan (Dormouse), keyboardist & vocalist for Marc and the Mambas; Billy Houlston (Tweedle Dee), who ran the Banshees’ fan club; and Don Ash (Tweedle Dum), whose existence outside of this role remains a mystery to me.

Each of the four Banshees gets their time in the spotlight to tell a story indelibly stamped with their own quirks. First up is Robert Smith, being interrogated by three mysterious figures in plastic clown masks which keep changing in between shots. Smith’s story consists of context-free answers to his interrogators’ questions, which take the form of incomprehensible spurts of electronic noise. He keeps cycling back to a repeated refrain of “Nothing’s so clean! Nothing’s so perfect!” before the sequence ends, leaving the audience disoriented and confused. Budgie’s story is much more straightforward – a whimsical poem about a little boy whose abuse of a peccary pig while visiting the zoo leads to him being eaten, narrated with a barely suppressed grin as Budgie wanders through a park and the London Zoo. Siouxsie’s story takes a turn for the sinister, her face alternately obscured or highlighted by a shifting array of shadows in carefully composed shots as she tells of a woman’s paranoid flight through urban and natural environments back to her family home, which proves not to be the reassuring haven she expected. Steve Severin’s giallo-tinged closing story is an abstract free verse poem about the assassinations of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, delivered in halting speech as each word appears on an old electric typewriter. Severin is clad in leather coat and sunglasses, while the camera lingers lovingly on fetishistic close-ups of the pieces of a sniper rifle slotting together.

The musical interludes span the range of the Banshees’ various projects. The Creatures take pole position with the tropical percussion of recent B-side “Weathercade”, dragged back from the warmth to a damp and cold England by wailing harmonica. Siouxsie is dressed like The Avengers‘ Mrs Peel dragged up as John Steed in bowler hat and umbrella, with a stripy orange/black T-shirt visible beneath her formal jacket. Next up is The Glove with the melancholy instrumental “A Blues in Drag”, staged straightforwardly with Smith on piano and Severin on strings against a three-panel backdrop of blue/yellow spirals. Finally, the nagging 3 second tape loop which played constantly in the background of the tea party sequences breaks forth into Siouxsie and the Banshees performing “Circle” from A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. Siouxsie struts around in a mustard officer’s jacket, leather trousers, stiletto heels and a cap while wielding a riding crop. Severin and Budgie mime playing their instruments like professionals, while Smith (who didn’t actually play on the original recording) jabs listlessly at the keyboards, barely interested in pretending that this is anything to do with him. The backdrop shifts between a tube train on the circle line and a spinning Catherine wheel before reverting to the tea party, continuing to play out behind them until the song ends and the band wakes up on a park bench, completely covered in fallen Autumn leaves, as if rousing themselves from the aftermath of a shared acid trip.

Apparently the band had run out of material at this point, because the final 16 minutes are pinched directly from the Nocturne concert film, a harsh triple onslaught of “Eve Black/Eve White” (a 1980 B-side inspired by the multiple personalities of Christine Sizemore as documented in the 1957 book The Three Faces of Eve); “Voodoo Dolly” (from 1981’s Juju); and “Helter Skelter”, a discordant reinterpretation of the Beatles classic dating back to their punk days which sonically encapsulates Charles Manson’s distorted appropriation of the original for darker purpose. Although the appearance of these selections may have been a case of simply making up the running time, in the context of the TV special they evoke the feel of the rough edges of reality reasserting themselves in the morning-after comedown of an acid trip, yanking the viewer unceremoniously back out of Wonderland with a protracted primal scream.

By the time the Siouxsie and the Banshees TV special was aired in September 1984, the era it documented was well and truly over. April saw the release of The Top and the beginning of Robert Smith’s reconciliation with Simon Gallup, who rejoined the band with 1985’s The Head on the Door and has been a mainstay ever since. Hyaena came out in June, not long after the recruitment of new Banshees guitarist John Valentine Carruthers (formerly of Clock DVA), followed in quick succession by a trial recording session in August to work on the development of their sound. The end result of this session, The Thorn EP, was released one month after the TV special aired, marking the beginning of a new era for the Banshees which would last until 1987’s Through the Looking Glass, their tribute to David Bowie’s Pin Ups album. 1988 would see not just the beginning of the next chapter in their career, but also the seduction of my teenage self into Siouxsie’s world with the gloriously off-kilter “Peek-a-Boo” – but that would be a whole other story.

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